The last time an iconic Wisconsin men's basketball head coach attempted to name his own successor, it ended in disaster. When Dick Bennett retired abruptly three games into the 2000-01 season, essentially forcing Pat Richter to promote Brad Soderberg as the interim head coach, the Badgers exited the NCAA tournament with their tails tucked between their legs.
Stymied in his first attempt to hand the job over to his right-hand man, Bo Ryan ignored precedent and went a similar route as Bennett in one final wily endeavor as the Wisconsin head coach.
With its finality, Ryan's unexpected announcement that he will not coach another game for the Badgers elicited an even bigger flood of reflection on the golden age of Wisconsin basketball than his proposed retirement this past summer.
Ryan leaves behind an incredible legacy, not the least of which are his four Big Ten Coach of the Year awards, four regular season Big Ten titles and three conference tournament championships. Ryan did Bennett one better, capping his career with back-to-back Final Fours and national championship game appearance last April.
Bo Ryan retires; Greg Gard named interim coach
Badgers head coach and future Hall-of-Famer Bo Ryan announced his retirement, effective immediately, after Wisconsin's win on Tuesday at the Kohl Center.
By retiring midseason, Ryan also preserves unblemished streaks of never missing the NCAA tournament while at Wisconsin and finishing in the top four of the Big Ten every season.
Due to Ryan's public backpedaling on his earlier announcement that the 2015-16 season would be his last, Tuesday night's news was initially shocking. In other ways, however, it's hardly surprising at all.
Those that have watched and listened to Ryan for 14-plus years in Madison are familiar with who he is. Remember a younger Bo firing away at Big Ten referees over a decade ago as the new guy in town? That competitiveness was contagious, often helping to will less talented Wisconsin teams to reach heights it hadn't seen before. His stubbornness was an asset in teaching the game. Prior to this season, a player could count on sitting with two fouls in the half and grabbing some pine after an unforced error. Adherence to this simple plan of attack annually molded the Badgers into national leaders in both categories.
Though that same stubbornness also led to a few awkward exchanges with the media over the years, it was a clue as to how the end of Ryan's career would play out. We should have known the Chester, Pa. native would have something up his sleeve to get things done his way.
In June, Ryan appeared to be giving his boss Barry Alvarez a year's notice to find his replacement, yet he never left any doubt as to whom he sees fit to run the program in the future. That man, Wisconsin's interim head coach Greg Gard, begins his audition now, after 23 years as an assistant under Ryan.
When Alvarez balked at the idea of anointing Gard, it was clear the "Bennett option" was in play, though comments yesterday at the post-game press conference confirmed the two coaching legends came to terms on this plan through discussions over the past few months. This was not a surprise to Alvarez or the Wisconsin Athletic Department, which had a retirement tribute immediately queued up for launch online.
What is similar to the Bennett scenario 15 years ago is that Ryan is adamant about giving his guy a better chance to take "a run at the job."
Ryan explained how the health of Gard's father Glen, who passed away in October, may have delayed this retirement. Early-season losses and perhaps a feeling of not getting through to this team could have also taken their toll. And Ryan had to know that stepping away now would also eliminate the cloud of uncertainty hanging over recruiting, which ultimately harms Gard's chances in relation to other head coaching candidates.
Of course, the cloud goes away permanently only if Gard succeeds in impressing Alvarez.
Gard, 45, claims to be accustomed to the pressure of coaching for his job every year. As associate head coach he handled scouting reports, implemented new looks to the offense and coordinated UW's scheduling for years. Gard has been a top-notch recruiter for the Badgers, too. He has dominated in Minnesota early (grabbing Jon Leuer, Jordan Taylor, Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz), identified local talents like Josh Gasser, and was the lead recruiter for younger players such as Alex Illikainen, Khalil Iverson and Andy van Vliet.
However, Gard has never been at the head of the table at the collegiate level before. Gard's first objective is to hire a third assistant coach to help him out as he takes over a 7-5 team struggling to maintain the excellent standard forged by the his predecessor.
The numbers and records you will continue hearing over the next few days and weeks in reference to Bo Ryan can only hint at the mark he is leaving on Wisconsin's program and the state of the game in Wisconsin itself. Ryan retires with the highest winning percentage in Big Ten history with a record of 172-68 (.717) in conference play. Overall he amassed more wins (364) than any coach in Badger basketball history and finished with a career record of 747-233 (.762) in over 32 years as an NCAA head coach -- all in Wisconsin.
Any discussion of Bo Ryan's time at Wisconsin should also include his work raising money for cancer research. Headlining the efforts for Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin since 2007, Ryan and his wife helped raise $1,078,301 in four years of the #MakeBoPay student event on campus alone, plus millions more via the annual Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin Gala.
Though the announcement wasn't quite as surprising as Bennett's, I'll admit the timing fooled me. I had been warming up to the idea of Ryan coaching one additional season in 2016-17, to stabilize the program after what looks like it will be a rocky transition year. That would have left the Badgers in the best shape moving forward for whomever took over the reins, be it Gard or someone else.
While Alvarez loses a Hall of Famer presently, the benefits go both ways with a midseason move like this. Alvarez will see Gard command a program up close before conducting a national coaching search, a luxury Wisconsin would not have had if Ryan had retired in a more traditional manner. The detail-oriented Gard has been getting shoutouts from Ryan for years, but the lack of head coaching experience was glaring.
Luckily, Gard has one week sprinkled with final exams to prepare his guys for their next game against Green Bay, a job he was a finalist for in 2010. And if Gard finds a way to rally the troops and get this team another NCAA tournament bid, Alvarez would be wise to remove that interim tag.